This is the third and last in a series of notes on Acts 15, a passage which comes up frequently. Acts 15 is a key to understanding Jewish-Gentile relationships to the Torah in the New Covenant.
Acts 15 Notes: Part 3
Leman, Derek. Paul Didn’t Eat Pork. Stone Mountain: Mt Olive Press, 2005.
…That We Not Trouble the Gentiles…
What does James mean? What exactly is it that they are not to trouble the Gentiles to do? At the start of the chapter, we find that certain believers wanted the Gentiles to:
Be circumcised, tantamount to conversion (vs.1).
“Direct them to observe the law of Moses” (vs.5).
When James says that the leaders of the Yeshua-movement should not trouble the Gentiles, then, he means:
They need not be circumcised.
They are not obligated to the whole law of Moses.
So many scriptures teach that not all of the Torah applies to Gentiles that it should be a simple conclusion. For example, the Torah itself says Shabbat is only for Israel (Exod. 31:13), dietary law is only for Israel (Deut. 14:21), and circumcision is only for Israel (Gen. 17). Galatians 5 warns the Gentiles considering conversion that if they allow themselves to be circumcised they will have to keep the whole Torah (Gal. 5:3). Colossians 2:16 tells Gentiles not to let others judge them regarding a Sabbath day. Romans 14:5, discussing differences between Jews and Gentiles, notes that not all follow the Sabbath.
“Abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood”
These four things all had to do with pagan temple life. Meat dedicated to idols was sold in the temples and was a common source of meat. Temple prostitution was widely practiced in Greco-Roman temples, much as it had been in the Ancient Near East. Tim Hegg, in Paul: The Letter Writer, provides evidence of drinking blood and eating strangled (not drained of blood) meat in pagan temples. James was saying, “These Gentiles don’t have to start living as Jews, but they need to immediately cease pagan temple practices.
“For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Those who believe that the Torah applies equally to Gentiles and Jews attempt to use this verse to prove their point. Here is how they interpret it, “For now the Gentiles need only worry about four major changes in their lifestyle. We can’t expect them to adopt a Torah-lifestyle overnight. Later, they will hear the word preached in synagogue and they will learn Torah and adopt it.”
There are several problems with this interpretation:
1. The followers of Yeshua were ejected from synagogues in many places. In Rome there were riots in the streets over Yeshua earlier than 48 C.E. The trouble in Galatia, most likely involving synagogue leaders threatening to expose Gentile followers of Yeshua as frauds, also occurred quite early and before Acts 15. James would not have assumed that Gentile disciples would be in synagogues.
2. James used the past tense, not the present or future. That is, he did not say, “After all, Moses is being preach in the synagogues.” He said, “Moses has from ancient times been preached in synagogues.”
A more consistent understanding of James’ point has been offered by Rabbi Russ Resnik. He observes that James is using the past tense. His point has something to do with Moses having been preached in the past. Here is a possible answer: James is noting that the law of Moses, which has long been heard by Gentile God-fearers, did not result in a mass turning of Gentiles to God. It is the gospel which has done so. Thus, it is not conversion to a Jewish way of life that the Gentiles need.